Deaths due to substance abuse, particularly of alcohol and opioids, rose sharply among older Americans in 2020 as pandemic lockdowns disrupted routines and isolation and fear spread, federal health researchers reported on Wednesday. Alcohol and opioid deaths remained far less common among older people than among those middle-aged and younger, and rates had been rising in all groups for years. Still, the pronounced uptick surprised government researchers, reports the New York Times. Deaths from opioids increased among Americans 65 and older by 53 percent in 2020 over the previous year, the National Center for Health Statistics found. Alcohol-related deaths, which had been rising for a decade in this age group, rose by 18 percent.
“The rate of alcohol deaths in older people is much lower than for younger adults, but the change caught our eye,” said Ellen Kramarow, lead author of the report, which analyzed death certificate data. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids account for fewer than one percent of deaths in people over 65, Dr. Kramarow noted. “But the shape of the curve jumped out at us,” she said. Physiological changes with aging leave older adults more vulnerable to the ill effects of alcohol and drugs, as metabolism and excretion of substances slow down, increasing the risk of toxicity. Alcohol and opioids can interact poorly with prescription medications that many older adults take for common conditions like hypertension, diabetes and mood disorders. Misuse can lead to falls and injuries, exacerbate underlying medical conditions and worsen declines in cognition.